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One up, one down: Houghton reaches split decision on rezoning requests

Houghton reaches split decision on rezoning requests

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Matthew Eliason, attorney for Isle Royale Seaplanes owner John Rector, addressed the Houghton City Council in 2019 to start the discussion on rezoning. Rector was seeking a rezoning or variance to allow his business to move to a location on Houghton Canal Road. Also pictured in the photo are from left, Police Chief John Donnelly, Clerk Ann Vollrath and Councilors Buck Foltz and John Sullivan.

HOUGHTON — Two rezoning requests for property along Houghton Canal Road met differing fates at Wednesday’s Houghton City Council meeting.

By a 4-3 vote, the council approved a rezoning request for JRG Development to rezone property along Houghton Canal Road from R-1 (single-family residential) to B-2 (community business).

The council voted down an identical rezoning request from Isle Royale Seaplanes, 3-2.

The only changes were Mayor Bob Backon and Commissioner Mike Needham, who had to abstain from the second vote because they had already voted for it at the Planning Commission.

Mayor Pro Tem Robert Megowen and Councilors Mike Needham and Daniel Salo also voted in support. Voting against the rezoning were Councilors Virginia Cole, Brian Irizarry and Joan Suits.

Both properties are on the former slag tailing site for the Michigan Smelter, which was later remediated through the Torch Lake Superfund cleanup before being delisted. It was part of 78 acres the city annexed from Portage Township in 2008 through a Public Act 425 agreement. The land was zoned R-1 at that time to honor the wishes of its then-owners, which had sought to develop the property.

Needham said the potential uses of the site fell into the kind of adaptive reuse the EPA intended for Superfund sites. He said he was also confident in other regulatory agencies from the local to the federal level that would need to sign off on any development before it occurred.

“I greatly respect the fact that the EPA, through remediating the sites and putting monitoring plans in place, wants redevelopment to happen,” Needham said. “Our place in this right now is simply considering the zoning.”

Irizarry offered three conditions that would have to be met before he would vote yes. He suggested the council make modifications to future PA 425 agreements, such as requiring a specific development project. He also wanted EGLE or another environmental authority to determine if the development’s impact would be safe for freshwater sources. He also wanted the Hancock City Council to be part of the decision-making process, given the city’s proximity to the canal.

“The positive potential impact on our local economy, in my opinion, is outweighed by the potential negative health and quality of life impacts,” he said.

Sentiments were split in a lengthy public comment section.

A number of residents from Houghton or in areas nearby in Stanton Township and Hancock worried about potential environmental impact, as well as possible added noise and additional traffic along Houghton Canal Road.

In the EPA 1992 Record of Decision for the Superfund site, it listed the Michigan Smelter location as having an “unacceptable” level of cancer risk for future residents if people ingested the tailings or slag, which contained heavy metals such as arsenic and beryllium. It put the excess risk of cancer in that instance at roughly 1 in 20,000. Some also brought up the risk additional soil disturbance might pose if another flood swept sediment into the canal.

Attorney Evan Dixon said by not first getting approval from the state Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment (EGLE), the rezoning might run afoul of state law. He cited requirements in the state’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act calling for submission to EGLE for approval or disapproval of “an existing zoning ordinance or a zoning ordinance or a modification or amendment to a zoning ordinance that regulates a high-risk area, a flood risk area, or an environmental area.”

“There’s other alternatives, safer alternatives, for concerned community members to work together with the Council, together with the Planning Commission, to come up with environmentally sound ways to use this property, to develop this property,” he said.

City Manager Eric Waara said he had a lengthy conversation with a representative from EGLE who had been contacted about the rezonings.

“The answer I got was, zoning is a local issue,” he said. “It wasn’t an EGLE issue, at least to the person I talked to.”

Prior to the vote, Suits said the council should delay action until the matter was sorted out.

Jennifer Norkol said the property owners should consider requests to a more restrictive B-1 zoning, which would prevent the potential for bars, restaurants or hotels.

“It would have the lowest have the lowest impact on the environment, it would probably create less objection,” she said. “…No one, I believe, in any of these conversations, are supposing to tell the city what to do. They are worried about impact.”

With the seaplane operation, rezoning opponents also worried about the potential for noise from seaplane operations, as well as the chance of accidents with recreational users in the canal.

“Rezoning this large area from R-1 residential to B-2 business, with conditions allowing much higher occupancy and noise, will fail to control the intensity of the land and water use,” Liz Gerson wrote in a letter. “Instead, rezoning should benefit residents and property owners, and also serve the greater good of the community.”

Several local developers and realtors weighed in on behalf of the rezonings, saying it would spur economic growth in the area.

“The goal of every Superfund site is for the land to be put back into beneficial use,” said Derek Bradway.

Seaplanes had previously operated out of that location from the early 90s through 2001, said Jon Rector, owner of Isle Royale Seaplanes. Rector’s family bought the business in 2014 with hopes of expanding it. Part of that included buying planes with non-amphibious floats, meaning they can only take off or land on water. That ruled out the airport as a base of operations, he said.

“If we’re not able to use this property, we’ll still be flying up and down the canal from a different location,” he said. “All of these people that live along the canal, they’re going to hear this noise regardless. Actually, in this location, we’ll get most of that noise away from the densely populated areas.”

Rector said they had also worked to reduce the noise impact to the community, such as adding three-bladed propellers that reduce noise and adjusting its flight paths to affect the fewest number of residents. Deed restrictions on the property also forbid it from operating before 8:30 a.m., he said.

As for the safety issue, Rector said in the history of National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reporting accidents, there had been three incidents where an airplane had collided with a boat.

The company makes eight round trips to Isle Royale National Park per day at its peak, Rector said. It also makes flights for tours, though that only amounts to several additional flights per summer, Rector said.

JRG sought to rezone its property after unsuccessfully marketing it for residential areas. It has no specific plans for development on the site, said Kristine Weidner, a representative for JRG.

To address some of the environmental concerns, JRG amended its proposal to exclude 13 acres of wetland near the mouth of Coles Creek. The change may have inadvertently ensured its passage at the City Council level. Needham and Backon had also joined the Planning Commission in unanimously voting for the JRG Redevelopment proposal in November, the same night as the Isle Royale Seaplanes rezoning proposal. Needham abstained from the January vote on the modified proposal, while Backon was absent.

Weidner also addressed claims from an online petition and a Gazette advertisement from the Stop314.com PAC, a group opposed to the JRG rezoning. The online petition was drafted in opposition to both rezonings.

The petition had originally mentioned the possibility of a 10-story hotel, which Weidner said would be impossible because of deed restrictions on the site. Also, she said, the estimates included in the ad of 300 more vehicles per day were not supported by a formal traffic study.

The wetlands areas would also have federal and state protection in addition to zoning and covenants, she said.

“Zoning does not relieve a developer from complying with all city, county, state and federal permitting and approval processes,” she said.

She noted other Superfund sites had been redeveloped for commercial, multi-family and industrial uses. A higher-density use such as that permitted under B-2 might cause less disturbance than under the existing R-1 zoning, she said.

“R-1 zoning could result in 10 to 15 more single-family homes, each with their own foundation, versus a scenario of just a few multifamily or mixed-use foundations,” she said.

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